Sunday, October 31, 2004

I can only agree with the comments made about the inadequacy of evidential apologetics. I was staying in a bed and breakfast on Wednesday night and found a copy of Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict on a shelf there. This is a book I have never looked at before but I was intrigued because it was the subject of a mass debunking exercise by a group of infidels (including our own anonymous poster) which is probably still available on the II site somewhere (yes, here we are).

The mistake made by McDowell and other evidential apologists is that they do not allow for other explanations a part from the one that they want us to believe. Most of the II critique is based on the idea that McDowell should have included all the opposing views rather than making his presentation look like an open-and-shut case. This criticism is obviously bogus, but the mere existence of the opposing views invalidates much of McDowell's argument. For instance, he claims that because the death of Jesus fulfilled so many Old Testament prophecies, it must prove he was the son of God. Well no, it does nothing of the sort, especially if the Gospels are written precisely with those prophecies in mind. Likewise, even if we grant the central historical facts of the passion narrative, we are still miles away from proving the resurrection - especially to someone whose world view forbids miracles. As Sherlock Holmes said "Eliminate the impossible and what is left, however unlikely, must be true." As the resurrection is viewed by some as impossible, another theory, however unsupported, must be true.

Which leaves us with a central truth about evangelism. Conversion is a matter between the individual and God. No human being can convert anyone. All we can do is allow ourselves to be used as instruments when He needs them for His own work. As our commentators said, apologetics is better off debunking the opposition rather than proving its own case. It is the defense advocate and not the prosecution.


Layman said...

What form of apologetics does not have its inadequacies? I think we can evanglize by example, by prayer, by acts of kindness and charity, by philosophical debate. All that has its place. But so does evidential apologetics--whether focused on science or history.

The examples you point to -- OT prophcies and proving the passion -- are example of tactical shortcomings. I've not resorted to the fulfilled prophecy argument because I think the fight is much to much uphill. But if I did I would realize that I had to eliminate the notion that the New Tesament narratives are simply wholeclothe inventions based on the OT. In other words, if McDowell does not do this then his shortcoming is an inadequate evidential argument. Not that he is making an evidential argument.

We all must keep in mind that there is a vast diversity of potential converts. For those, as you point out, who reject the possibility of miracles, the first step is dealing with their philosophical presuppositions. Evidential apologetics will take a second place to that battle. On the other hand, some people may be undecided on the issue or suspect that the supernatural is possible, then evidential apologetics will be more relevant. And perhaps more effective. Finally, there are Christians who have their faith challenged by skeptical arguments. Evidential apologetics can be very effective in such circumstances (the defense advocate) as you put it.

I remember a contagious Christian class my wife and I participated in. There was a women there in her 30s who was an engineer. She was not a Christian but was open to the idea that God existed. By the end of the class she was a Christian and remains so to this day (about 5 years later). What brought her along? One thing was personal testimonies from some of the participants -- such as my wife -- who had converted to Christianity as adults themselves. The why and how and effect of that really affected her. But she had many "evidential" type questions. Although I had little to offer in the conversion story department, I did have something to contribute in response to these questions.

So evidential apologetics had a part to play in an offensive operation. :)

Anonymous said...

I think Luke Timothy Johnson has a point when he says that the state of biblical scholarship is such that just about any theory can support itself. There are almost as many theories on the historical Jesus are there are historians.

This is a real problem for apologetics since the multiplicity of theories has lead to the balkanization of faith where everyone can entrench themselves in a particular point of view.

In such a situation the advice of St. Francis of Assisi becomes all the more important: "Evangelize everyday. Use words only when necessary."

jack perry said...

I was converted by seeing how beautiful were the Catholics who actually lived their faith, and by learning the story of St. Bernadette. I am to this day St. Bernadette's faithful devotee (Protestants may gnash their teeth to read it — but hey, at least I didn't say the Virgin Mary :-))

I have two problems with Evidence that Demands a Verdict. First, its legalistic approach turns me off. Second, McDowell claims scholars believe something: just that, "scholars", not quantifying whether he means "all scholars", "some scholars", or "a handful of scholars", implying that they all believe his claim, when in fact many, or even most, do not.

The classic example would be Jericho. As I recall it, McDowell reports that Jericho's walls look as though they exploded from the inside. But this is not what most scholars seem to think (according to what I have read): rather, they believe that its walls collapsed from lack of maintenance after Jericho was abandoned, long before the tribes of Israel came to Canaan. (Maybe you know something about this, Bede?) This of course is inconvenient to McDowell's argument that the Bible reports historical facts precisely as they happened, but again: everything I've read suggests that most archaeologists believe that Jericho was abandoned before the Israelites arrived.

That said, McDowell makes some excellent points (again, from memory): there is more "historical" evidence for the life of Christ, pretty much as recounted by the Gospels, than there is for Cæsar's Gallican wars. However, this major evidence is excluded from being historical, because its writing was prompted by religious faith — whereas Cæsar's writing De Bello Gallico was prompted by pride, which somehow makes it "more reliable."

Since someone mentioned Luke Timothy Johnson, I'll refer to something else he writes in his indictment of the Historical Jesus movement: when you remove the sources written by the people who were closest to Jesus, then you may very well invent a "more historical" Jesus from what's left, but you cannot seriously claim that your "historical" Jesus is the "real" Jesus. Like it or not, the real Jesus is the Jesus of faith.

That's a great book.

James said...

I liked Johnson's book The Real Jesus too. And I would agree with Jack's criticism of McDowell if only mildly. I don't think he was obliged to sell the opposition case too but perhaps he should have let on that there was an opposition case...

Layman said...

It's interesting to see how maligned McDowell has become for his apologetics works because he is not really an apologist--he's a youth minister. When I was in high school he was pushing the "I'm NOT Doing It" movement among teens. He appeared at Christian rock concerts and at churches urging Christian teens to wait until marriage to have sex. He actually was quite good at it.

He also had a half-hour show on Christian t.v. where there were dramatic enactments of issues teens face, such as suicide, peer pressure, drugs, etc. Very little on apologetics.

So I've always seen his apologetics books as part of his youth ministry. It's for high school students or Christian kids starting college. It's meant to give them a handy defense of their faith. It's not a direct engagement of skeptics or salvo against skepticism per se. I know he hypes all those degrees he got at Seminary, but using him as the poster-child for evangelical apologetics is a bit of a distortion.